Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics

Allen Carlson has written an article titled "The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics" which, one could say, takes off from a passage from one of my writings, arguing that his (and Glen Parsons') solution is the best solution to the dilemma, better than mine anyway, although possibly not quite as good as one that would also incorporate in some way Arnold Berleant's aesthetics of engagement. ("The Dilemma of Everyday Aesthetics," Aesthetics of Everyday Life:  East and West ed. Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014)  After noting Yuriko Saito's recognition of the dilemma in her Everyday Aesthetics he goes back to my quote, which I repeat here:  

"It would seem that we need to make some sort of distinction between the aesthetics of everyday life ordinarily experienced and the aesthetics of everyday life extraordinarily experienced.  However, any attempt to increase the aesthetic intensity of our ordinary everyday life-experiences will tend to push those experiences in the direction of the extraordinary.  one can only conclude that there is a tension within the very concept of the aesthetics of everyday life."  Leddy "The Nature of Everyday Aesthetics" in Andrew Light and Jonathan M. Smith The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005).      
Saito's response is to focus on "everyday life ordinarily experienced," although Carlson thinks her examples, including Japanese gardens and special ways of packaging, takes us way from objects of everyday use, which he takes to be the "paradigmatic stuff of everyday life." (51)  He thinks we need to come to "grip with the aesthetic appreciation of truly ordinary stuff experienced in a truly ordinary way."  (51)

I would like to make a little Marxist detour here. (This is one of the nice things about writing a blog:  one does not have to rigidly follow scholarly conventions, like not mixing Marxist and Buddhist reflections with Analytic Aesthetics. My Buddhist detour comes at the end.)   What if the way we experience truly ordinary stuff in an truly ordinary way is the product of conditions of alienation produced the a capitalist system?  What if the oppression we sometimes feel from the ordinariness of ordinary life is a function of late capitalism?  What if liberation from capitalist oppression was a matter of overcoming ordinary ways of perception?  Consider Herbert Marcuse's way of looking at the poetry of Malarme in Marcuse's "The Aesthetic Dimension," where he says "his poems conjure up modes of perception, imagination, gestures - a feast of sensuousness which shatters everyday experience and anticipates a different reality principle."  (Ross, Art and Its Significance, 555)  Well, of course the response would be that the shattering everyday experience is precisely what we do not want in everyday aesthetics.  When poetry does this, it takes us away from everyday life.  But, again, as Marcuse might say, isn't this just giving in to the capitalist reality principle?  If art has "emancipatory value" wouldn't that be clear in the way it frees us from perceiving everyday life under such a principle?  

Carlson goes on on consider a possible formalist approach to everyday aesthetics noting both the Roger Fry and Clive Bell would generally be opposed to everyday aesthetics but also that some things that Bell, at least, says allows for the possibility.  In particular, Bell observes that one can see a landscape in terms of a "pure formal combination of lines and colors" and that most people have done so, for example in seeing fields and cottages "as lines and colors."  Although Carlson admits that this is a "promising approach," he sees it as ultimately unsatisfactory since "in many instances formal properties depend upon framing." (53)  Moreover, there is something trivial about the approach.  He believes this because he associates it with with postcards and calendar images, things that "promote a misleading and superficial aesthetic appreciation...of everyday life."  Moreover, he believes formalism fails to resolve the dilemma since it "reduces the everyday to a shadow of itself, to a shallow veneer."  (53)  

Carlson is being a bit unfair to Bell's formalism, which, although perhaps misleading, is hardly shallow.  The quote about fields and cottages is taken from Bell's chapter "The Metaphysical Hypothesis" in Art.   Bell also writes there:  "Occasionally when an artist—a real artist—looks at objects (the contents of a room, for instance) he perceives them as pure forms in certain relations to each other, and feels emotion for them as such. These are his moments of inspiration: follows the desire to express what has been felt. The emotion that the artist felt in his moment of inspiration he did not feel for objects seen as means, but for objects seen as pure forms—that is, as ends in themselves."  and   "What is the significance of anything as an end in itself? What is that which is left when we have stripped a thing of all its associations, of all its significance as a means? What is left to provoke our emotion? What but that which philosophers used to call "the thing in itself" and now call "ultimate reality"? Shall I be altogether fantastic in suggesting, what some of the profoundest thinkers have believed, that the significance of the thing in itself is the significance of Reality? Is it possible that the answer to my question, "Why are we so profoundly moved by certain combinations of lines and colours?" should be, "Because artists can express in combinations of lines and colours an emotion felt for reality which reveals itself through line and colour"?"  For Bell, when an artist perceives significant form in a landscape he is seeing it as charged with metaphysical meaning.  This would, of course, be misleading if there no underlying reality connected with the experience of significant form.  Bell is himself very hesitant about the hypothesis.  Still, wouldn't it be obvious that if Bell were right about then then clearly, unlike works by Cezanne or the other great Post-impressionists, kitsch postcards and calendars are precisely the things that fail to get at significant form. Carlson just fails to see that Bell would have as much disgust for this ephemera as he has.  So the key here is whether there is anything to the "metaphysical hypothesis."  If there is then Bell hardly "reduces the everyday to a shadow of itself."  As for frames, I can only say here that there is a certain inevitability to framing, that everyday perception itself engages in framing, and that there is no reason to believe that Bell's artist frames the landscape he observes any more than anyone else, including the cognitivist aesthetician.  

Carlson also believes that ritualization fails to help solve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics:  "since the point of aesthetization processes such as ritualization and artification is to raise the events, activities and objects of everyday life above the humdrum of day-to-day existence, they do not resolve the dilemma of everyday aesthetics" (55) since their goal is not to appreciate the everydayness of the everyday.  The Japanese tea cereomy is given as an example of something that takes mundane things and aestheticizes them through ritualization.  For me, another puzzle is posed here.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist philosopher, calls on us to be mindful in our everyday lives.  He thinks that in washing dishes we should wash dishes for the sake of washing dishes, should slow down and notice every moment of washing dishes.  (See my earlier earlier post on this.)  The dilemma of everyday aesthetics remains in that if we attend to dish-washing in the ritualized way that Hanh suggests then we will perceive the ordinary as something extraordinary, and yet the resolution of the dilemma may simply be that we then realize that this is just the ordinary itself (i.e. as it should be seen by a person who has achieved mindfulness).  The ordinariness of the ordinary would not be see however in its dull, boring nature as an even in our commodified and alienated culture but as something rich and meaningful. I continue this discussion in the following post.

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